Ambition to action – the aluminium sector’s commitment to decarbonisation 

Aluminium is a lightweight, durable metal that provides the backbone for a wide range of products and services essential to the lives we lead today – cars, aircraft, drink cans, window frames, solar panels, and electrical cables are just a few. It is a metal whose prominence in our societies has grown significantly since the end of World War II. In 1950 global usage of aluminium was 1.7Mt, by 2022 it had risen to 108Mt and in 2050 it is expected to rise to 176Mt.

Despite the importance of aluminium, for years neither the material’s supply chain risks nor its sustainability impacts were given much consideration outside of the industry. Over the past decade or so, this has changed significantly, and questions are being asked by all stakeholders from project financiers and governments to customers, consumers and local communities.
Where does it come from? What happens after I’ve finished using it? What impact might it have on the environment or local community?

The aluminium industry itself has long grappled with these sorts of questions and has an established history of sustainability-oriented development and growth. Issues such as energy efficiency, climate change impacts, waste and emissions management, and community engagement have increasingly influenced business decisions over the past several decades. Now, sustainability sits at the core of many companies’ value propositions. The sustainability challenges which the industry faces are significant and varied and with another climate conference (COP28) on the horizon, the industry’s role in mitigating climate change is set to take centre stage once again.

A Metal-intensive Future
Aluminium is a key metal in many sustainable solutions such as electric vehicles, solar panels, cabling and electrical infrastructure. Along with reducing production-related emissions, the aluminium industry can contribute to climate change efforts through emissions reductions in other sectors such as transport, building and construction and packaging. Increasing electrification, automation and the proliferation of green policies will necessitate an overhaul of current global energy systems to low-carbon equivalents. This transition will be significantly more metals-intensive and over the coming decades, the aluminium industry must find ways to increase production to unprecedented levels to meet growing demand from the transition, while at the same time reducing emissions to close to zero.

Since the landmark Paris COP, the terms ‘Paris-aligned’, ‘Below 2 Degrees’ or ‘1.5 Degrees-trajectory’ have become familiar in conversations about climate change ambitions or goals. For many, these terms, though clear in their intent for global and national climate efforts, are less clear if applied to a specific industry or organization. The IAI recognized this as a potential barrier to longer-term climate change planning and in 2020 launched Aluminium Sector Greenhouse Gas Pathways to 2050.

The report was the culmination of years of data collection followed by months of data collation, analysis, and deep discussion with representatives from all major aluminium-producing regions in the world, and it outlines what it means for the sector to be ‘Paris-aligned’. Building on this work, a 1.5 degrees-aligned trajectory broadly aligned with the International Energy Agency’s Net-Zero Scenario, was launched at COP26 and indicated the aluminium sector, which in 2018 accounted for approximately 1.1 billion tonnes of CO2eq. emissions would have to reduce its emissions to just 50 million tonnes CO2eq. by 2050 – a sizeable task.
Actions Speak Louder than Words.

To reduce sector emissions by over 1 billion tonnes over the next 30 years, the IAI outlined three distinct pathways for action, focused on: electricity generation and transmission; direct process and thermal energy generation; and circularity and resource efficiency.

The three pathways take into consideration the diverse nature of the industry and they acknowledge that it is unlikely that every pathway towards zero emissions will be the same. Instead, each producer will respond based on local availability of options, and natural endowments and under a variety of policy and financing frameworks. What is common to all producers, however, is the desire to have a positive impact on the global climate change agenda – and we see examples of progress towards this shared ambition with significant investments and innovation across the value chain.

Climate change, in the context of broader sustainability, is a high priority for aluminium producers with action being taken by all companies and not just those with existing low-carbon operations. Figure 1 demonstrates the breadth of action across the sector – from significant shifts in coal-fired power generation to hydropower in China, to new inert anode technology in North America and electrification of thermal processes across multiple locations. Alongside these developments in the production of primary metal, recycling continues to be a key emissions reduction lever with new large-scale recycling investments across multiple regions.

Read the full article on the World Climate Foundation website.

This article was written by Pernelle Nunez, Deputy Secretary General and Director of Sustainability, at International Aluminium Institute, for the World Climate Foundation in preparation for the World Climate Summit.